What does it mean when you laugh at a joke?
Are you laughing at the craft of the comedian — the set-up, the delivery or the punchline? Or is it the mention of a taboo subject that triggers your subconscious to chuckle out loud? If it’s the latter, should you actually be laughing? Where’s the line between funny and too far?
These are the questions Carolina students are exploring in a course called The Ethics of Stand-up Comedy, which examines comedy’s role in society as a form of cultural expression full of underlying ethical discussions.
“When I laugh at something, I don’t think about why I’m laughing. I just laugh,” said Jada Gailliard, a rising sophomore in the course. “This class makes me think about things I generally wouldn’t.”
The course is one of nearly 50 classes being offered as part of the Summer School’s Maymester program this year.
The three-week course explores the historical, sociocultural and legal significance of stand-up comedians. By combining scholarly articles on the theories of humor with the stand-up bits of comedians ranging from Joan Rivers and George Carlin to Chris Rock and Mitch Hedberg, the class uses comedy as a way of constructing the American identity and as a tool for ethical development.
Discussions cover a variety of topics, from the methodologies stand-up comedians utilize to the political and ethical stakes of the genre.
“We base our conversations around comedy, but the underlying idea that we’re talking about is our moral guidelines, our ethical communication and just the way that we treat people,” said Gailliard, who is a pre-public health student. “It’s not just discussing comedy, and it’s not just about English or American Studies, it’s about who we are as people and the way our morals shape our conversations with other people. It can connect to any discipline.”
When it comes to understanding the American identity and our morals, associate professor Michelle Robinson said, comedy can play a critical role. Stand-up comedians, after all, are social critics as much as they are entertainers.
“Comedians bring up the issues and illustrate some of the ethical crises that we need to wade through in the class,” Robinson said. “It’s a way to start talking about challenging issues.”
Students also examine how comedy has evolved as a craft through American history — from recordings on vinyl to Twitter comedians. By doing so, they can see how our society’s mores may have changed throughout the years.
Ultimately, Robinson said, she wants her students to view comedy as a tool for human flourishing and to use the craft as a way to examine themselves and their place in the world.
“It’s an important skill, more broadly, if you want to have access to levity or a place where you go to think about issues that are challenging,” she said.
For Gailliard, it’s done just that.
“It’s helping me be more self-aware and realizing that I don’t exist in this individual bubble, but that the way I choose to carry myself impacts other people even if I don’t realize it,” she said.